Portfolio | Open Kitchen

September 30, 2009

Amanda Hesser and Merrill Stubbs are looking for a few good recipes. More than a few, actually: 156, to be exact.

Even though they're each experts in the kitchen—Hesser has been a food columnist for the New York Times for over a decade; Stubbs has worked for Cook's Illustrated, the Times, and many others—they need your help. You see, they have a cookbook due out from HarperStudio next year, and they've built a website called food52 to gather and curate recipes for the book. Whatever Web 2.0 buzzwords you choose to describe it—Crowd-sourced cuisine? Aggregated appetizers? Choose-Your-Own-Cooking-Adventure?—the creators are aiming to use the tools of the Web to change the way cookbooks are created.

"We wanted to present this very simple idea," Hesser said recently at a homey cafe in Boerum Hill, Brooklyn, which serves as her and Stubbs' unofficial office. "Let's build this cookbook together."

At the same time, they aim to make a new kind of food site, one she describes as "more than a vast database of recipes." "A food site that felt curated, that felt like there are people behind it," she explained.

"When we started thinking about this, I think probably a lot of people would've thought we were crazy to start a business with the economic climate the way it was," Stubbs said. "But actually we thought it was a great time to start a business online."

In that impulse they're not alone. Other journalists have chosen to start their own Web businesses in the teeth of the recession, going without the safety nets of the large (though suddenly shaken) media companies that have tended to support them. Take Sharon Waxman, the former Hollywood correspondent for the New York Times who launched her own entertainment-business news site earlier this year. Just last week, her site, The Wrap, inked a content-sharing partnership deal with Microsoft.

A food- and cooking-oriented site may also prove to be a good idea for a very bad moment in time. According to a recent Washington Post report, U.S. consumers bought 7.5 million cooking and entertaining books in the first nine months of 2009. Despite this year's economic downturn, an editorial in the most recent issue of Gourmet Retailer, a trade publication, foresees the quality food market "poised for a renaissance" since "if one is to forgo a European vacation or a new car, then artisan cheeses, extra-virgin olive oil, and high-end cookware don’t seem so extravagant." (Taking that triumphalism just one step too far, the editorial also proclaims, "Copper and stainless steel are the new black…")

"There are many excellent food sites online—and an increasing number of them," Stubbs adds. "But interestingly, there isn't really a space that studies the talent and knowledge of home chefs."

Food52—Hesser says the name came partly out desperation searching for a domain name not yet taken and because she and Stubbs like names like Area 51 and Matchbox 20—has been in development for nine months. After a dozen weeks of closed membership, it's now in beta with just over 3,000 registered members who can submit recipes, discuss others' work, and vote on the weekly finalists chosen by the site's founders to narrow down the 156 recipes needed for the book. Two recipes will be chosen by users each week along with one wild card picked by Hesser and Stubbs.

The site, which has no advertising, is funded with the advance the two creators got from HarperStudio for two cookbooks. With just enough bells and whistles—video, community, most-popular chart, a blog—to be both stickier and more complicated than most book sites, Hesser and Stubbs needed to hire a small staff to keep it running. They've already attracted some partners, like kitchenwares maker OXO, which awards prize packages to winners and finalists in the weekly recipe contests, and Chambers Street Wines, a New York-based wine shop that offers users discounted wine pairings for some recipes. (A planned online store, which would've sold tools selected by Hesser and Stubbs, was put on hold before launch.) Paid subscriptions—the suddenly pressing concern for all online-content creators—have been considered, but there are no plans at the moment since Hesser and Stubbs are hoping to build an audience that's heavily invested in the site.

There are also plans for a Tournament of Cookbooks to crown this year's best titles, with input from celebrity judges like Gwyneth Paltrow and live panels in which food issues will be discussed. "It seems like people are yearning for more of a forum where they can discuss more of these topics," Stubbs says.

Both insist that these events—like the site—are less about the traditional approach of experts telling readers how to do something and more about creating an open exchange. "A lot of old food media was top-down," Hesser says. "And that's what we're trying to do, acknowledge the shift. Let's all share ideas."

The two women have worked closely with one another for the last five years compiling a 1,200-recipe New York Times cookbook for W.W. Norton, so they tend to finish one another's sentences and feed off each other with ease.

"Yes, we know a lot," Stubbs said. "But we're not here to teach so much as spread other people's ideas.

"As cooks, we acknowledge we have a lot to learn."

- Matt Haber

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